By Tommy Keeler Jr.
There's not much question that Central is the underdog when it plays against defending state champion Spotswood today at James Madison University's Convocation Center in the Class 3A girls basketball state semifinals. And that's just fine with the Falcons.
Spotswood is 54-2 in the last two years, with both losses coming to strong private school teams. Central is playing in the state tournament for the first time since 1996.
"I love being the underdog," Central coach Mallory Skarupa said. "No one expected us to make this playoff run, and we have the potential. It's just one game -- 32 minutes is all it takes. They might be the better team, we just need to be the better team on Saturday."
The Blazers (25-1) are led by Tayler Dodson, who has signed to play at George Mason University next year. The 6-foot senior forward was the 3A West Region Player of the Year. She is averaging 22.1 points and 12 rebounds per game.
Dodson has plenty of help around her, including 5-foot-8 senior guard Nikki Lam (seven points, three assists per game), who has signed to play at Division II Concord next year. Lam can shoot from outside and is also a solid defender for the Blazers. The Blazers' second leading scorer is 5-foot-6 junior guard Elizabeth Dofflemeyer (15 points, eight rebounds per game).
Skarupa said she saw Spotswood play last year in the state tournament, and she was impressed with how well they played together.
Skarupa said the Blazers use the full-court press and a strong man-to-man defense in the half court, but she said they really like to turn the pressure up in the second half when opponents may be getting a little tired.
"We just have to make the smart pass, make the quick decision. We need to be quick, but not hurry," Skarupa said. "And just be smart, not let their defense sort of disrupt our game plan and cause the havoc that they want to cause. I always tell them, 'Play hard, play smart, play together,' and we really need to focus on that mental aspect of the game on Saturday."
Spotswood coach Chris Dodson said one of the reasons his team plays so well together is because many of them have played together for many years.
"We are a very cohesive group, who [have] played together for about 12 years now and this really helps us for several reasons," Chris Dodson said. "First, we know each other's next moves before they happen, and two, with so much invested we refuse to let each other down."
One Central player who knows a little about the Blazers is Falcons leading scorer Katelyn Poston. The senior point guard played with several Spotswood players on an Amateur Athletic Union team, the Harrisonburg Heat, when she was younger and was coached by Chris Dodson.
"I played for coach Dodson, I played with Tayler [Dodson] and Elizabeth [Dofflemeyer] and Rachel [Lindsay]. So I know how they play," Poston said. "A lot of the other girls played against us in AAU. So I think that's really going to be beneficial to us, knowing how they play and knowing how they're always intense."
Poston, a first team All-3A East Region selection, is averaging 19.6 points per game to lead the Falcons. She has plenty of help from her teammates. Freshman Tamra Scott (6.8 points, 7.1 rebounds per game) has been solid inside for the Falcons, while senior Mary Wakeman (8.1 points per game) had been lethal from beyond the arc.
Seniors Sydney Plum (5.9 points, 1.9 assists per game) and Rebecca Truban (2.7 steals, 1.8 assists per game) also contribute in a lot of different ways to help the Falcons. Every player that has come off the bench has been contributing during the postseason run.
One of the biggest keys for Central during the postseason has been playing together as a team, and the Falcons (19-9) will certainly need to continue that against the Blazers.
Chris Dodson said he's been impressed with the way the Falcons play the game.
"Central is a team that plays the game the right way, fundamental in what they do," Chris Dodson said. "They have an obvious leader that they follow, and they play tough defense and rebound even better. They don't beat themselves and that's half the battle in high school sports."
Central has not won a state title in girls basketball since 1996, and the players realize they've already accomplished a lot this season no matter what happens today.
"It's a huge accomplishment, and just kudos to our team for being able to come through and come together and really work together as a team," Poston said. "We're close on and off the court, and I think that's what's taken us as far as we've gone."
The game will be the first for the Falcons at JMU, and the players are really excited about being able to play on a Division I college floor.
"I really like JMU's gym," Wakeman said. "So I think that I'll be excited just to be able to step foot on that court and to be able to play on it. It's like a different world than just some high school gym. I think that might pump us up more since it's like a college gym."
The winner of the Central-Spotswood game will play Broadway on March 12 at VCU in Richmond at noon for the state title.
Central's four seniors aren't ready to have their season come to an end, and are relishing the underdog role.
"We felt like we've been the underdog in just about every situation. Nobody thought, and we didn't really think, we were going to be able to go this far but we have," Poston said. "And there's definitely no reason for us to want to stop now. We want to be able to get that ring."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 168, or email@example.com Follow on Twitter @tkeelernvd